Brother

When it gets late, we watch Cops on TV,
once all the rest have made their way to bed.
Then you make cheese on toast, and I make tea –
we feel inclined to sit up late, instead –
and though our conversation is quite plain,
you’ll show me something funny on your phone,
and when we laugh our ribs vibrate with pain,
as though at something we should have outgrown.
At three or four o’clock we start to shrink;
my tired mind begins to wonder whether
you’ll think about us sitting here, in sync,
when you and I no longer live together.
For me, it’s that I’ll miss, though it seems trite –
when we watch Cops together late at night.

Love Letter

You write about the moon
its opalescence
a bowl of shadow and pearls

the way it paints over 
everything it sees
the world in pallid gloss

You write about art
its multitudes
the lawlessness of expression

the ghost that shapes
everything we do
the bent arm behind us

You write about love
its essence
and of the helplessness

the violent shooting heart 
without restraint
the thunder after the strike

You write 
You write
You write

and it makes me sick

Ghost


It was you that taught me
to put newspaper between
the bottles so they don’t clink
when you put the bins out,
and how to read a map;
you’re handy like that –
a born navigator

I still get lost.

There’s a rolling boil deep
in my chest these days,
rumbling in my tight throat;
I let it out in slow sighs,
like bleeding a radiator,
and pick plaster off the walls
you built in the house

I still get lost.

Listen to the soft fricatives
of the leaves outside;
I think it’s autumn now, and
I still see you in the bath water,
and smell you in the sea –
I want to hear it over and over.
I wish you’d tell me

so I don’t get lost.

Only Dickheads Ride Vespas


Alex watched a large brown fly circle the sticky perimeter of his glass, and wiped the sweat from the back of his neck. The heat was stifling, and his focus had long since shifted from his parents’ conversation to the distant, silver spatter of the municipal fountain on the far side of the smouldering plaza. He imagined himself beneath its aquamarine deluge – feeling the cool water sweep into his armpits, and slick down, across the backs of his knees. He fancied he could smell the scent of chlorine and pennies from where he was sat, but the fantasy soon fell apart in the heat of the airless day.

He turned his attention back to his parents. His father was three minutes into one of his recapitulated monologues on how the game had all changed since the 1970s, and how Alex’s generation couldn’t possibly hope to recreate such a prodigious era. From the bits and pieces that he had tuned into, Alex knew that his father had already covered the problems with digital refereeing, and obscene player pay packets – “It just beggars belief, son.” – and would soon circle back to good old-fashioned love of the game.   

“V-A-R, lad.” He said. “It’s not what football’s about.”

His mother nodded – a silent but complicit audience to his father’s lecture – reapplying her lipstick before a plastic Revlon compact, which she had fished out of her handbag. Alex glanced across at her, as she did this, and watched as her prodding caused tiny beads of sweat on her top lip to pool and trickle. She dabbed at them with a tissue, fished from the endless recesses of the same bag. 

“Players used to get in there, tooth and nail. Injuries were just part of play.” His father’s voice became wistful. “None of this rolling around like sodding – like – like a bunch of poofs.”

“Derek.” Alex’s mother hushed, looking up, pocket comb in hand. He ignored her, and emptied the rest of his lager into his mouth. Before he swallowed, he held the gulp between bloated cheeks, and raised one finger to indicate the continuation of his disquisition. Alex flirted with a rogue image, imagined slapping his father’s cheeks with both hands and watching the warm beer burst from his lips. The look of disbelief.

“Beckenbauer.” 

At this, Alex knew to look his father in the eye. This was not to aid his understanding: Alex could recite his father’s speech about Beckenbauer’s broken collarbone, during the 1970 World Cup semi-final between West Germany and Italy, almost verbatim. He had heard it many times before, but his father took special delight in relaying the courageous tale for such occasions as these, on the eve of his only son’s A-Level Results Day, and Alex knew better than to risk the story taking longer than absolutely necessary, or taking narrative detours, as his apparent disinterest had prompted from his father in times past. 

Still, despite his fixed gaze and rhythmic nod of concurrence, Alex could not help his mind drifting. He tugged at his shorts, feeling moisture between his lower thighs and the red metal of the outdoor seating. His parents had insisted they have dinner outside on the first day of their holiday, to ‘get that proper Spanish experience’, and had done so, at the same bar, every day since.

After several hours of laying by the hotel pool, and one unsuccessful attempt to have Alex play table tennis with the other boys, his father had showered and scrubbed his puce, tumescent suntan to a glow, and marched them to the local market square, to eat. He ordered Alex and himself each a lager – his wife opting for a small brandy. As the drinks arrived, Alex watched his father slurp the first half of his first pint, and expel a deep sigh of satisfaction. From across the table, Alex could smell the carbolic scent of his father’s hair ointment, his chest hair poking slightly from the collar of his cream shirt. As the bar had become more familiar to them, his parents had settled into the small routines of the place, nodding knowingly at the wait staff, and making their way effortlessly to the same table, situated beneath a tattered, Coca-Cola patio umbrella. 

“Well drink up, lad – get it down you, for Christ’s sake.”

Alex thought once again about the heat, and wondered how long he could be expected to stand it. His father’s incorrigible lecturing was challenging enough, but this slow poaching was something else. He wondered if it were really more bearable than instant incineration by flame. 

It made him recall the time, in middle school, when a local firefighter had been roped in to come to give a talk on fire safety to all of Year 6. He had demonstrated his equipment, impressed everyone with the thermal imaging camera he used on the job, and even let Stephen Henderson try on his yellow helmet and visor. Outside the school, the fire truck had been parked all morning and, at break, its sirens rang, to the puerile delight of all. Alex had been so blown away, not least by the man’s death-defying anecdotes, that he had come home with the idea that he might become a firefighter himself, when he was older. For the rest of the term, he filled an A4 notepad with drawings of fire stations, and burning buildings. He absorbed VHS recordings of Backdraft and The Towering Inferno, played on repeat – even humouring a taped copy of Fireman Sam – picturing himself scaling endless flights of stairs, to rescue the helpless and the feeble from imaginary blazes. Then, that August, the worst heatwave in thirteen years struck the UK, and it took Alex only two days of hiding in his bedroom to realise then that his dreams were just that. He just couldn’t take the heat. 

The bar front, across from where Alex and his parents were sat, was situated across a small, and rarely used road that separated the somewhat humble establishment from its seating area: it faced out, towards the plaza, with its cheery tangerine awning, and unchanging menus. On their first visit to the café, his father had asked the perplexed teenage waiter for a ‘99, trying to explain the concept with hand gestures. The youth shrugged, lowering his pad and resting his pencil behind the ear not currently occupied by a cigarette. Alex felt a fat bead of sweat make its slalom way through to his hairline, and caught it as it rolled to his cheekbone. He had felt himself screaming inside his head, in the unbearable wait, as his father repeated the words once again. The waiter returned the unintelligible offering in kind, smirking slightly, as Alex’s mother winced at both the sun, and the waiter’s attempt to decipher the meaning of Choc-Ice.

The holiday had been his parents’ idea. 

“It’ll take his mind off it all, Derek.” His mother had said. “Then he can come back and celebrate.”

Alex had no idea whether or not there would be cause for celebration. The entire exam period had passed much as the preceding two years: unspectacularly. His chosen A-Level courses had left him ambivalent to begin with.  He had dropped Politics after the first year, following what his teacher had described as a ‘particularly uninspired’ final essay on Socialism and Its Global Ramifications. His mother had wanted to speak to the head teacher but Alex had persuaded her not to. After all, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be a politician anyway. 

“Load of tossers, politicians.” His father had confirmed. “You’re better off out of all that, and getting a real job, like your old man.”

Alex had shrugged. 

“Let him alone, Derek, would you. Please.” His mother had said, using the fragile, tight-lipped tone of voice reserved for ending conversations. She sipped her brandy.

His father paused his oration to undo another button on his shirt, and Alex took the opportunity to excuse himself to the toilets. He made his way across the road, and into the shade of the bar front, embarrassed by the thwack of his tourist’s flip-flops against the asphalt. He heard his father’s voice call him.

“Order me another beer, while you’re in there.”

He made his way through the bar area, and was just about the turn the corner towards the toilets, when he noticed a girl in an apron, writing what he assumed were the specials on the chalk board by the door to the back room. She had climbed up onto the end of the bar, and was then shifting her weight from one knee to the other, as she scraped the chalk across the smoky black slate. He stood still, and felt the familiar, humiliating throb of longing find its way to him. She turned, licking the corner of a napkin to correct an error, and Alex watched her brown arms twitch as she steadied herself against the countertop.

In the toilets, he leaned against the basins and looked at himself in the mirror, running his hands under the cold tap. With wet fingers, he pushed back his ginger hair, to expose his full face. His eyes were reddened by sun exposure: a stark contrast to the white eyebrows and lashes he had so often loathed. Alex thought to himself that he looked not unlike a magician’s rabbit: white and pink-eyed and weak. Quivering. He imagined being dragged out of a hat by a pair of strong hands.

He thought again about the girl at the bar, and closed his eyes: imagined the life of her, and her routines. He pictured her shift ending, and saw her hands reaching behind, to remove her apron – her fiddling with the strings and laughing with the other staff. Would she walk home, or drive? She would walk, probably, as most of the locals seemed to. Perhaps she lived in the apartments above the bar itself. How cool, he thought. Or, if not, perhaps her boyfriend would give her a lift home. Alex imagined an impossibly handsome man pulling up, and nodding in her general direction, as she climbed on the back of his Vespa. What kind of a dickhead rides a Vespa, he thought. He’d be laughed out of Kirkdale if he pulled up on one of those. Alex tried to picture the scene, but couldn’t apply the image of the bronzed pair against the drizzly backdrop of Sterling Road. He imagined the girl’s hands reaching around the man’s stomach, as he drove her away, her fingers knotted. Her chin on his shoulder. Laughter.

He opened his eyes.

She was gone, by the time he returned from the toilets. Heading back outside, the shock of the sun across the terrace caused him temporary blindness, from beyond the cover of the awning. He paused, wincing from the shade, as his mother and father emerged out of white obscurity. He had forgotten the beer.

The Edge

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The night before, it was supposed to be Lucy’s turn to close up the shop, but she’d had to nip off early because the baby had the croup, and Tim had a work thing to go to. I’d offered to do it for her, because I actually quite liked the silence; the soundlessness of the shop floor as order is once again restored. Like a big jigsaw. In a way, I thought it would do well to prepare me for the following morning. Something practical, to take my mind off things.

At closing time, Arthritic Maggie had said Rather you than me, petal, and asked if I had plans for the weekend. How’s your fella, the one from Hull? She’d asked, and I’d told her he’d gone back home for a while because things around here were too depressing. So, he went back to Hull, of all places? She’d laughed. I laughed too. Why not, I thought.

Then I’d gone to Mam’s for tea. I cooked. After the fourth brandy, she’d started on about grandkids and living in a bedsit, and how just because he’d sodded off it didn’t make it too late to do something. It was like her to make him the cause of all that had since unfurled. His leaving was something tangible. Nothing chemical about it. She could sink her teeth into a dumping. When I mentioned what Dr Farouk had said about treating the mind not the symptom, her lips pursed, as though the very mention of anything to do with the hospital had wrung the moisture from her mouth. What did he know, she’d said. He’s not even from this country.

I knew immediately I had to forgive her because, at that point, she didn’t know what I was going to do, and all she could see were the desiccated remnants of my youth spread out like an upturned refuse sack. But then, she was going to have to forgive me, too. When I left, she brushed a spec of dust from my coat and told me to comb my hair. You’ll never find a man looking like that.

As I lay in bed that night, I made a mental checklist of what needed doing. I had left out enough food for the cat, to last until they came to sort out my things. I had checked the train times and calculated roughly that one left the station every four minutes or so. My clothes were laid out on the folding chair beside the desk. A sense of small satisfaction came upon me as I marked my own efficiency, when I noticed the digital display of my alarm clock, mapping a ghostly neon hatching across the far wall. It reminded me of the paintings in Dr Farouk’s office. Abstract, he’d called it. Much like the human brain. Both complex, both beautiful. We need to analyse to understand. I thought about how many hours I’d spent staring at those paintings, as Dr Farouk laid his delicate fingers on the desk between us, and tipped his head to one side. I thought about the garish, lazy colouring of them. If that’s my brain, I thought, I don’t want to understand.

I turned over, away from the clock, and felt my back stiffen. It occurred to me that I was far older than I’d once felt, as though the number had been allocated a different meaning, displaced by more important considerations. It crept upon me, with the realisation of a slow winding down.

The next morning, I deliberately didn’t wear my boots, despite the cold, because heels attract attention. I knew that the irresistible sound of hard foodsteps on concrete platform would be a problem, and would command the attention of onlookers. I stuck to soft soles and silence. Platform four, being the furthest from the station entrance, would be the least fuss to decommission for the rest of the afternoon.

It was one of those days when the sky is cold milk, and your breath is hung before you in wet heaps.

Four trains arrived and departed before the right announcement shook its metallic din from the speakers above. The platform master appeared, and it was then that I could see he was only a boy. He wasn’t what I’d pictured. The next train arriving at platform four does not stop here. Perhaps he was twenty, or twenty-one. He still had acne on his face. Please keep back from the platform edge. I wondered if he had ever seen a dead body before, on the internet. Whether his mates had shared something like that with him on their phones. Keep back from the edge. Did he have mates? The train now arriving does not stop here. Would he know what to do? Had he been doing this job long enough to know? Keep back from the edge. Would he forgive me?

I didn’t stand up straight away.

She would never forget when

they were making love

and he paused

to say, ‘I love you’.

He was holding himself up,

looking down at her,

and breathing hard,

taking a break

from the perfume

of her neck.

Though he had

said it often

before then, it was

as if in that moment,

whilst they were

most connected,

he had realised it

truly for the first time,

and had to say it

out loud, to himself

at least. She had

been touched

by his abruptness,

and the way

he had looked at her –

something plaintive

in his expression that

could not be refused.

Passing Thought

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Yesterday, you said you had thought about me
and I didn’t ask why.

I didn’t ask if you had been imagining saving me
from an inferno – snatching me from the strong arms
of harm, so that you might not be forced to live
without me;

or if your thoughts were of craving me
in that orange dress you like – at a party where
people stare, and everyone wants what you have
for free.

I didn’t ask whether it had been first thing
in the morning – if my image slid into focus with
the slow light of day, and stayed in place like
a ghost;

or if it was the evening when cicadas croak
their song into the darkness – if you had it then
when we cannot help but think of what we want
the most.

No, I didn’t ask. I just wanted to hear it –
needed to know nothing more of overcoming obstacles
large or small –
it was enough for me
that you thought of me
at all.

I don’t open the curtains these days.

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The sun is garish
and always yelling –

a loud exhibitionist
a tactile party guest

drunk on their own stories –

it spills around the room
touching everything
behind my thin eyelids
with hot, glittering hands.


We prefer the dark –
the simmering violet void of night

that leaves the vulgar
roaring remnants of day

clinging to the edges

a night that does not
force herself upon you,
but pulls you close.

You lean in

her chasmic depths are moonless.

 

Friend Request

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She had met David online when he, a mutual friend of an old colleague, had sent her a friend request. Following what had been a taxing, if not entirely tedious, day of processing innumerable forms, she had returned home to find the little figure in the top right corner of the home screen was coloured red, proffering a tiny speech bubble containing the single number ‘1’. It wasn’t the case that this alone had taken her by surprise, or had stirred any greatly anticipatory emotions within her. She was used to friend requests, from distant cousins, neighbours, and the like, though most often from middle-aged colleagues who, having recently discovered their own effervescent online presence, would proceed to forward video compilations of dogs falling into swimming pools, and grainy, garish reproductions of inspirational quotations from pulp fiction writers. But David was different: a stranger, a spark of promise amidst the quotidian hum of the everyday. She knew at once that she would accept the request, but humoured her shy sense of dignity by scanning his profile briefly, as if to vet the man at the other end of it, flicking through profile pictures and noting which school he had gone to, before sending her response.

After she had accepted, she fed her cat, folded some laundry, and completed the minutiae of the quiet evening, before getting ready for bed. That night, whilst brushing her teeth, she looked up at her face reflected in the small oval mirror that hung above the sink. She had never been considered a beauty, even in her youth, but she fancied that her face still retained something of the girl that came before the woman. She was grateful for her mother’s high cheekbones, which, even now, seemed to beat back against the inevitable pull of gravity, keeping her jawline from drooping – though her own aging had never truly disturbed her, as it had others.

‘Of course you don’t mind, Ann.’ Her sister, Maggie, had exclaimed, discovering the first rogue chin hair. ‘But I do. Fetch me some tweezers quickly, for God’s sake.’

Almost a decade later, she still could recall how Maggie had continued to absent-mindedly rub the area from whence the hair had been plucked, as if to smother any instinct her body might have to reproduce it.

Before she went to bed, she looked again at David’s profile and it occurred to her to question if the request had been sent in error, and whether her hasty acceptance had made her look foolish. But, when her alarm rang the next morning, she awoke to discover a new notification on her phone screen: a comment, beneath a photograph of her, at Maggie’s fortieth birthday party. In it, she was standing in the background, behind a white plastic lawn chair, holding a stack of paper plates and smiling, as party poppers partially obscured the foreground of the photograph.

‘Really cute!’

She read his comment over, and then again, squinting and blinking the morning’s blur away. She refreshed the page, and still it was there, as fixed as a Shakespearean phantom dagger, leading the way forward – the way to him. Ann would laugh about this comparison later but, that morning, she looked again at the photo, this time with a more critical eye, and surveyed its contents. It was a good picture, and even she conceded that there was something nice about the way her hair looked under the glow of the fairy lights she had helped to string up, in Maggie’s garden: it looked soft, and the small, twinkling bulbs behind it had given her face a suggestion of warmth. She noticed however, for the first time, Flossy, the family’s border collie, lounging on the grass of the neatly clipped lawn, to the left of her: still only a puppy then, she had her head cocked to one side, with the slightest expression of alarm, prompted by the frenzied celebrations, in her baleful brown eyes. She looked particularly cute. Had David meant…? But, before the question could fully formulate in her mind, a second notification flashed up – a private message, this time:

‘Dog’s cute, too.’

That day had passed much the same as the following 4 weeks. Almost instantly, they had begun messaging daily. She had told David about her work in the finance office of a local primary school, of her day trips to the coast, and what she was reading. He, in turn, had told her about his collection of movie memorabilia, about the years he had spent working in Asia, as a young man, and about how he had always wanted to learn to play the guitar. A quickening sense of comfortability permeated their conversations, and she soon found herself revelling in his attentiveness. A flurry of sensations, each more exquisite than the last, had now infiltrated her life. She marvelled at the happiness this chance encounter had brought her since.

Though their interaction had been limited to the online realm, the first breach into the real world was made when David had a bouquet of flowers delivered to her office, one breezy afternoon in June. She had been staring at the sky, through the window nearest her desk, contemplating the threat of rain, when Julie, the school’s receptionist, had swung her broad hips through the office door with a tall box and a smirk.

“For you.” Julie had said, before half turning, searching for a reason to hover.

She was desperate to take the box home with her, and open it in the delicious privacy of her flat, but the peering eyes of her colleagues made it clear that she had no choice but to unveil the gift to all. Inside the box, she found a sumptuous mass of sunflowers and delphiniums, and a card, which she had rapidly concealed from view, cringing in the burning heat of exposure.

“Who are they from, then?” They had asked.

“Oh, just Maggie.” She lied. “I babysat the twins the other week, while she and Mark were at one of his work dinners.”

She had not yet told a soul about David, and had not enjoyed the prying inquiries of her peers, least of all from Julie, who squeezed her shoulder, taking great, heaving sniffs of the bouquet, as if to validate their authenticity. Julie was the sort of woman whose gregarious displays of exaltation and delight for others revealed her own feelings about their inadequacy. Her surprise at the gift’s arrival indicated just how paltry she perceived the life of its recipient to be, compared with her own.

“Oh, Annie!” She’d squealed, and practically shook her hand in congratulations.

Ann resisted the urge to read the card until she was safely back in her flat, at which point she carefully opened the envelope to reveal the printed message of its sender.

‘I hope these brighten your day, as you do mine.’

 

*

 

The following Sunday afternoon, she expected Maggie for a visit. She had spent the morning sprucing up the place, even going as far as to dust the back of the TV, and wipe down the slats of her kitchen window blinds. As she did this, she noticed herself humming. She had placed the flowers on an old stool, which doubled as a coffee table in her somewhat poky living room, carefully lifting the vase so as not to disturb the petals. They had not yet begun to turn, and she looked at them again and again throughout the day, as they sang their colours boldly.

Maggie was late, and had not escaped the rain, which had also arrived, despite the warm weather. Leaving her coat by the door, but keeping her handbag with her, she allowed Ann to guide her into the living room before she launched into a rant about the weather.

“It can’t make up its mind.” She said.

Ann smiled to herself, wondering what David would make of this, and it reminded her of a message he had sent her, earlier that week. She imagined he would laugh at the very Britishness of it all, and make a joke about the immutable nature of small talk.

“Something looks different about the flat.” Maggie had remarked, at last, as she sat on the sofa. Ann had smiled, taking the armchair by the window, as was her habit during these visits; they talked about work, and Maggie’s children, the threads of their conversations weaving neatly and familiarly together in a stale sort of complacency. After a half hour or so, Ann got up to fetch a packet of biscuits, which she knew her sister would not touch, and to refresh their mugs of tea. She wondered if her leaving the room would draw fresh attention to the flowers on the table, and that perhaps Maggie might save her the trouble of bringing the subject up, by mentioning them first. She had wanted to tell Maggie about David, for her sister to be the first to hear about him. She had planned the disclosure carefully, and had hoped that the flowers might provide a useful segue into discussing him, with her sister.

It wasn’t true to say that they were not close, or that they did not talk. Their routines were deeply and jointly embedded, and the historical familiarity of one another’s habits was surpassed only by their own. They had existed, for all of their adult lives, within reach of one another, but their closeness was reserved to a realm of practicality: pragmatic, without real intimacy. It was as if both women had reached an understanding that to delve into anything beyond the superfluous might risk reopening old wounds. When the subject of their childhood, or their mother, was, on occasion, raised – perhaps at parties, or by friends – the two had established brisk strategies for changing the subject, in a way that did not raise alarm, but calmly and quietly ended the line of enquiry. It had taken Ann years to realise that this strategy had not only been exercised with strangers, but with one another, and the realisation of this had pained her.

Ann wondered if her intended, yet tentative, revelation about David might stoke the embers, and inspire a spark of change; she felt revitalised by this hopefulness. For years, even before their mother’s death, they had co-existed, paradoxically separate, and yet also inextricably together. She longed to light a fire over the dry plains of their communication, and she knew David could do it for her.

At long last, the bubble of privacy in which Ann had existed for the past month, was broken, as she heard Maggie’s voice calling from the adjacent room.

“These aren’t very you, are they.” She said. “What’s the occasion?”

“Oh.” She replied, and carried the mugs back through to the room, the packet of biscuits pinned under her arm. “They’re from a friend of mine. A new friend.”

Her sister shot her a brief glance, and she felt her legs might give out under the weight of her burdening desire to say his name. Maggie, uncharacteristically, reached for the packet, which Ann had settled on the arm of the sofa.

A rogue image flashed into her mind, of a time when she was very young, when Maggie had shown her the way to make rock scones. They had made them together. Hers had come out hard as tack, and she had despaired at her own uselessness, with a tantrum. But, as Ann was wiping her face, Maggie, perhaps a little clumsily, had picked up a few of her sister’s and mixed them in with her own perfect batch.

“Stop crying. See?” She had snapped, irritated by her whining, and holding a burned round up for her to look at, tapping it against the table. “I’ve made them before, and I still make mistakes. The oven must be broken. It’s not you. Stop crying, now.”

Ann felt a wave of nostalgia sweep over her, and was almost about to ask her sister if she remembered doing that, when Maggie brushed the crumbs from the corner of her mouth, and made her reply.

“Yes, I noticed that, actually. David, is it? I saw him tag you in something online the other week, and I wondered how you knew him. You know he’s Diane’s husband? Well, ex-husband, but only just.”

Ann froze momentarily before this revelation, and the slow, foul feeling of rot pervaded her. She felt that she knew, before it was said, that whatever her sister was about to tell her would bring to an end the delicate spell under which she had been rapt, for the past month.

“You know he’s always liking girls’ pictures, online, don’t you.” Maggie had said, conclusively, in statement of fact, rather than in expectation of a response. “Diane said it was practically compulsive.”

The use of the word ‘girls’ served its exclusionary purpose, both reminding Ann of her age, and reinforcing the ugly inflection the insinuation carried. As Maggie proceeded to describe his cataclysmic marital dramas, Ann felt herself steel against the sound of her voice, and the warmth of the earlier afternoon all but dissipated under the gravity of her disappointment. It wasn’t that Maggie had revealed anything particularly abominable, but rather that every new piece of information, significant or not, toppled the fragile framework she had built over the past month. It was spoiled. Something ugly had been allowed to enter this sanctum of happiness, and had muddied the water, now stagnant and foul. He was no longer a part of her future, but someone else’s history. By the time Maggie had finished her story and moved on to the topic of her noisy neighbours, Ann was entirely still, the hopes of the day having been extinguished one by one, like spent matches.

“But I don’t understand – why the flowers?” Maggie had asked, at long last.

“Oh,” Replied Ann, carefully, “I did him a favour. Processed some paperwork, that’s all. It was just a thank you.”

Maggie had been so engaged in the recitation of her news, she almost hadn’t noticed the state of emotional abjection then present the room and, taking into account Ann’s poorly worded explanation, and finding her sister less responsive than before, she hesitated, looking back at the quiet trail of destruction left in her wake. This was always her way, and she felt regret ooze silently into her mouth. She swallowed.

Both women sat noiselessly in the room, listening to the soft, twilit hushes of evening, from beyond the open window. A chill had swept inside and, in the time that had passed since Maggie’s arrival, it had grown almost too dark for them to see one another. But the prospect of switching on the main lights felt abrupt to Ann, who became suddenly afraid of the moment it would disrupt the pair, causing Maggie to realise the time – to return home, to Mark and the children. She knew, rather than hoped, this would happen soon, and did not wish to face the yellow meagreness of the evening alone. The night before her seemed to be stretched out: an endless tide of silence beating back the noise that had preceded it.

Eventually, however, the evening arrived and, neither wanting to acknowledge the situation before them, both Ann and her sister understood the time had come to part. Ann walked her to the door, and watched as her sister gathered her things and zipped up her boots. As Maggie turned to go, she hesitated. Her eyes quickly appraised her younger sister, and she wanted desperately to find the words she had said and cram them back into her mouth, but didn’t, nor did she address the want. Instead, having never been a hugger, she took Ann’s arm, for the briefest of moments, before letting go, and shutting the door behind her.

Later that night, as Ann’s phone lit up with another of David’s unreciprocated messages, on the nightstand by her bed, she pictured Maggie walking through the door of her home. She saw her, and her husband and children, and wondered what they might have spent the evening doing. She thought about their tea, their routines and their voices, and pictured her sister loading the dishwasher as Mark let the dog out a final time, both having sent the twins to bed before the News At Ten. She saw her sister’s face in the mirror above her own bathroom sink, and wondered what Maggie was doing, right at that moment. She thought about her sister, in the bedroom of her home, across the city, and in that bedroom, across the city, her sister thought of her, too.

 

Fever Dream

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I dreamed last night
of an empty room,
of absent colour,
swaddled tight
in pitch and gloom.

I woke in fright, in
spice-lined sheets,
the heat of night
having bled a cool
clarity from my mind – oh
I dreamed last night.

I saw darkness seep
into the lines, and
blur the light
and though I know
I have no right

I long to tell you why
I dreamed last night.